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The square root of Marrakech's magical riads

The intimacy of these traditional courtyard homes is a key feature of the guesthouses that occupy them today, as a new book by Elan Fleisher shows

Marrakech is baffling, seducing, appalling, always stimulating and never dull. Like almost anywhere, it is a place of contradictions, but seldom have these opposites been so acute; one footstep can transport you from a world of energy, discordance and alertness into a haven of quiet, tranquillity and pure pleasure. This is the relationship of Marrakech to its riads.

By its strictest definition, a riad is an enclosed garden or courtyard. However, by popular usage, the term has come to represent traditional Moroccan homes, built around such an enclosure and more specifically those homes that have been renovated and restored and opened to the public as intimate guesthouses.

This type of construction, with both public and private rooms organised around a central open courtyard, is a key distinction of Islamic architecture and remains remarkably consistent throughout the Arab world, from private dwellings and places of worship, through to the grandest palaces.

The inward-facing scheme of the riad is designed to maximise family privacy from the outside world. Such privacy is highly prized, conforming to Islamic cultural norms. As such, rooms typically have windows and balconies looking back inward to the courtyard rather than outward facing. This keeps the focus on the courtyard as centre of all house activities.

The Moroccan home in the Medina will have no frontage and is distinguished only by a modest door. The structure's outer walls and the outer walls of other homes parallel each other to form the alleys and passages through the Medina. This is the basis for the most striking of contrasts and contradictions, that of the grim and oft-neglected public street and the highly ornamented, highly decorated and well-kept inner dwelling.

The outer house door will open into a setwan, a modest sitting area where guests can be received without disturbing the inner house. From here a corridor will lead into the house and the open courtyard. This corridor will most likely be angled to shield from sight the inner life of the house. The lighting in the setwan will be very subdued, for a transportive experience of inward passage from dark to the brilliant illumination of the open-sky courtyard.

The courtyard is invariably square or rectangular in shape, set around the sahridj, a fountain or basin. The importance of the sahridj in the riad cannot be understated. Water is a potent symbol of life in desert lands and as such is valued as sacred. It represents the vital life force of the house. Thus, the courtyard is the focus of the house and the fountain or basin is the focus of the courtyard.

An inner garden is also highly prized and courtyards are likely to feature native citrus trees, palms and jasmine. Their fragrances add to the tranquillity of the trickling waters, for a perfectly balanced and harmonious oasis of peace.

Elongated rooms, called bayts, line the perimeter of the courtyard and are typically devoted to public salons and dining rooms. Each has a central open arched passage, which looks upon the courtyard and fountain. Tight winding stairways, illuminated with dappled lamp lighting, are tucked into the building's corners, leading down to hammams or up to the upper level, where private rooms are found. This upper level is lined with open colonnaded galleries, serving as passages between rooms, and being covered, both the passages and the private rooms are kept unusually cool considering the strength of the sun in Arab lands.

This forms the basis of the riad floor plans, although many public riads are often a collection of many courtyards and have found new ways of reinterpreting the form.

During the French protectorate of the last century, city development was concentrated in the new town, ignoring the medina, resulting in its subsequent lapse into decay. A profusion of European homeowners, passionate for the Moroccan domestic lifestyle, brought valuable investment and currency into a relatively poor country, which has revitalised the Medina.

Although fundamentals of riad design have been highly canonised within Islamic architecture through the ages, the vast majority of the fashionable riads have been developed by Europeans. Subsequently, these remarkable homes have expressed such principles in highly original and eclectic fashion. Be your riad customary or unconventional, your stay promises to be an exotic, romantic and fully transcendent Moroccan experience.

‘The Riads of  Marrakech’ by Elan Fleisher is published  by ACC Editions  (£35; antiquecollectorsclub.com)